Big 12 Football: Preview and Predictions for 2021 Season
The Oklahoma Sooners have won college football's Big 12 conference in each of the past six years, compiling an overall league record of 51-6 (including conference championship games) during that time. Take out Oklahoma State's games against FCS opponents, and no other team in the Big 12 has even 50 total wins over the past six seasons, let alone 50 league victories.
Will that reign continue for a seventh consecutive year, or could Iowa State, Texas or one of the league's other challengers have something to say about that?
In this preview of the 2021 Big 12 season, we'll talk favorites, challengers, biggest stars, top storylines, and coaches who are either new to the conference or enter the season on the hot seat. There will also be predictions for best offense, best defense and a full rundown of the conference standings.
If you've been paying any attention to preseason rankings and national championship odds, though, it shouldn't come as a surprise that we're anticipating a rematch of last year's Oklahoma vs. Iowa State conference championship clash.
Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma QB
It's not quite what Trevor Lawrence vs. Justin Fields was for the past two seasons, but there's an intriguing battle brewing between Spencer Rattler and North Carolina's Sam Howell in the chase for both the Heisman Trophy and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft. And as things currently stand, Rattler looks like the frontrunner in both.
As a redshirt freshman last year, Rattler led qualified Big 12 quarterbacks in just about every passing statistic you can name. Yards per game. Yards per attempt. Touchdowns. Passer Efficiency Rating. Completion percentage. All of them. And after a pair of disappointing early losses to Kansas State and Iowa State, he led the Sooners to eight consecutive wins the rest of the way, amassing 18 passing touchdowns, five rushing touchdowns and just three interceptions during that winning streak.
Bijan Robinson, Texas RB
Through the first six games of Texas' 2020 campaign, the most noteworthy thing about freshman running back Bijan Robinson was the terrifying fall on a hurdle attempt that somehow did not result in a broken back. He averaged a meager 4.6 yards per carry and 36.2 rushing yards per game and did not score once during those initial six contests.
And then he went bonkers, averaging 11.1 yards per carry and 162.8 total yards from scrimmage per game over his final four games. He also scored six touchdowns between Texas' regular-season finale and its bowl game against Colorado. Combine that incredible finish with the fact that he was a 5-star recruit and voilà, you've got a borderline top-10 preseason candidate to win the Heisman.
Mike Rose, Iowa State LB
I also mentioned this a few weeks ago in our projections of every Power Five team's MVP for the upcoming season, but Iowa State is chocked full of star players. There's not a particularly strong Heisman candidate in the bunch, and running back Breece Hall might be the only one drafted within the first three rounds next April. However, Hall, quarterback Brock Purdy, tight end Charlie Kolar and defensive end Will McDonald IV each have, at worst, an outside shot at being named the 2021 Big 12 Player of the Year.
The most important and most versatile player, however, is Mike Rose. Iowa State's senior linebacker led the team in both tackles and interceptions last season, and with the departure of edge rusher JaQuan Bailey, it's a safe assumption that Rose will also have an increased role in trying to bring down the opposing quarterback. He's the early favorite for Big 12 DPOY, and the Cyclones' chances of winning the league hinge on whether he lives up to that hype.
Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State AP
Deuce Vaughn is going to become a national phenomenon if the Wildcats are even remotely relevant. During KSU's 4-1 start to last season, the true freshman had 360 receiving yards, 309 rushing yards and five total touchdowns. He also finished the season with back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances and saw a fair amount of action as a kick returner.
Phillip Brooks has Kansas State's punt-return gig locked down, but don't be shocked if Vaughn significantly improves upon his already impressive first-year mark of 122.1 all-purpose yards per game.
Can Iowa State Win Its 1st Conference Championship Since 1912?
Iowa State had the best regular-season record and was the No. 1 seed in last year's Big 12 championship, but Oklahoma won the game. As a result, the Cyclones' outrageous conference championship drought continues. They last won one in 1912, when they and Nebraska tied atop the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association with a 2-0 record.
They have never been this well-equipped to get the job done, though.
Iowa State will open the season at No. 7 in the AP Top 25, its highest ranking ever. Just to reiterate, that doesn't say "highest preseason ranking." It's Iowa State's highest ranking in any week of an AP poll ever. That's because the Cyclones bring back the vast majority of the starters from what was one of the best teams in program history.
Expectations are understandably high, even with a gigantic, Oklahoma-sized hurdle standing in their way.
Will Oklahoma Finally Get over the Playoff Hump?
If Iowa State doesn't win the Big 12, it's probably because Oklahoma lives up to the preseason hype of being the second-best team in the country.
As already mentioned, quarterback Spencer Rattler is the favorite to win the Heisman. He is also surrounded by a bevy of talent, especially at wide receiver. And this Nik Bonitto-led defense should be even better than last year, which was the stingiest Sooners defense (21.7 points allowed per game) since 2009.
But will any of it matter if this team fails in the College Football Playoff yet again?
Excluding the playoff, the Sooners are 67-8 over the past six seasons. That's slightly better than 11 wins per year. In the playoff, though, they are 0-4, and three of those losses were rather ugly.
It's impressive that they have been a Top Four team so many times in recent years, but all these "Close, but no cigar" seasons are starting to feel like a 1990-93 Buffalo Bills syndrome.
The Whole Texas/Oklahoma to the SEC Situation
Both Texas and Oklahoma are still in the Big 12. They will remain in the Big 12 for the entirety of this season. And it's possible they won't join the SEC until July 2025 if the current media contracts can keep the agreed-upon realignment from happening early.
But we all know it's going to be a talking point throughout the season—especially if Texas loses at Arkansas on Sept. 11—as we keep an eye on how acrimonious the relationship becomes between the eight remaining members of the Big 12 and the two big-name programs leaving the league high and dry.
The big unknown right now is whether the Big 12 will survive this exodus. It's not part of "The Alliance" that the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12, formed and it's unclear whether the Big 12 will absorb some teams from Group of Five leagues (most likely AAC or MWC) or vice versa. The longer that drags on, the more the remaining eight teams (and fans of those teams) are going to want to beat the heck out of the Longhorns and Sooners.
Oklahoma and Iowa State are the clear favorites to meet in the Big 12 championship, but which teams are most likely to crash that party?
Texas has a new head coach (Steve Sarkisian) who will start a redshirt-freshman at quarterback (Hudson Card) and has a bunch of holes to plug on defense following the departures of Joseph Ossai, Caden Sterns, Ta'Quon Graham, Chris Brown and Juwan Mitchell. However, because of the star power of running back Bijan Robinson and how ridiculously good Alabama's offense was under Sark's direction last season, this still feels like the team most likely to knock either the Cyclones or the Sooners from their preseason perch atop the league.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
No more Chuba Hubbard or Tylan Wallace, but the Pokes will have Spencer Sanders back at quarterback for a third straight year, and they should have one of the best defenses in this conference. Whether they can legitimately vie for a spot in the conference championship will depend upon how quickly Mike Gundy can find and develop a new batch of reliable receivers—something which has never been much of a problem throughout his now 17-season run in Stillwater.
TCU Horned Frogs
Speaking of long-tenured coaches, kids born on the day TCU hired Gary Patterson are almost legal drinking age in the U.S. This will be his 21st season at the helm of the Horned Frogs, and they should be in business if he sets up both Zach Evans and Quentin Johnston to shine.
The 2020 5-star running back and 4-star wide receiver, respectively, were two of the three highest-rated recruits signed in program history, and they were the two best players on the team as true freshmen. Evans averaged 7.7 yards per carry; Johnston racked up 22.1 yards per reception. But they only combined for 87 touches in the 10-game season. Feed that duo more often in 2021—and hope quarterback Max Duggan can stay healthy—and you've got a team capable of knocking off anyone. (It's a shame they have to play each of the games against Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State on the road, though.)
West Virginia Mountaineers
Is this the year West Virginia's offense finally hits its stride under third-year head coach Neal Brown? Leddie Brown rushed for over 1,000 yards last year and is back for a senior season. He is also one of eight returning Mountaineers who had at least 100 receiving yards last year. (The only player who isn't back after hitting that threshold is T.J. Simmons.)
While the offense should be a bit better, we'll see if the defense can maintain its 2020 dominance. Opponents averaged just 291.4 total yards per game against West Virginia, which was the best mark among Power Five programs. However, they need to replace at least one crucial starter from the defensive line, linebacker corps and secondary.
Steve Sarkisian, Texas (1st Year)
What a winding road it's been for 47-year-old Steve Sarkisian. He has spent time with two NFL franchises and is now working with his fourth Power Five program following previous stops at Washington (head coach), USC (head coach) and Alabama (offensive coordinator).
There's no denying Sark has the offensive mind to lead any program. By the time he left Washington, the Huskies were averaging 38 points per game. In his first year at USC, the Trojans' scoring average increased by 6.1 points per game from the previous season. And that offense at Alabama over the past two years was downright lethal. It should be fun to see what he can do with Hudson Card, Bijan Robinson and Co. for the foreseeable future.
The big question is defense—not so much in Sarkisian's past but in Texas' present/future.
The Longhorns averaged better than 42 points per game this past season and still lost three times. As previously mentioned, they are replacing five key starters from what was already an underachieving defense. And patience is a virtue that Texas' higher-ups evidently don't have, as they fired Tom Herman after four consecutive winning seasons. We'll see if this first year of Sarkisian is more in line with what they're looking for from a head coach.
Lance Leipold, Kansas (1st Year)
Lance Leipold won six D-III national championships in the span of eight years at Wisconsin-Whitewater before taking the Buffalo job during the 2014-15 offseason. By his fourth season there, he led the Bulls to 10 wins for the first time in program history (at the FBS level).
But if he can turn Kansas around, that would be his greatest feat yet.
Not only did the Jayhawks go winless last season, and not only did they have an average scoring margin of negative-30.2 points per game, but they "parted ways" with Les Miles in March and didn't even hire Leipold until April 30. Outside of bringing a few transfers with him from Buffalo, Leipold had basically no part in constructing this roster, nor was he around for spring camp.
Here's hoping Kansas wins that opener against South Dakota, or else that current 13-game losing streak could extend to 25 games in a hurry.
I do love the Leipold hiring, though. Give him a few years, and he can probably at least lead Kansas to its first season with four or more wins since 2009.
Matt Wells, Texas Tech (Hot Seat)
Compared to the flaming hot seats in Michigan, USC, Nebraska and others, the pressure cooker surrounding Matt Wells is set to about a one-out-of-10 on the intensity scale. As far as the folks over at Coaches Hot Seat are concerned, Wells isn't even one of the 30 most vulnerable coaches heading into the 2021 season.
But if any team will give its coach a pink slip this winter, Texas Tech seems most likely to do so.
Wells is currently signed through 2024, and it would cost Texas Tech nearly $7 million (70 percent of the $9.9 million left on his contract) to fire him after this season. As far as buyouts in this sport are concerned, though, that's not too bad, and it's something they'll need to consider if Wells steers this team to a third consecutive season with a winning percentage of .400 or worse.
The addition of Oregon transfer Tyler Shough at quarterback might help, but it's the defense that has doomed the Red Raiders for more than a decade. They have allowed at least 30 points per game in each of the last 11 seasons, and it's only thanks to Kansas (46.0 PPG) that last year's mark of 36.7 didn't look too horrible.
Best Games on Tap
Louisiana at Texas (Sept. 4)
What a brutal start to this chapter of Steve Sarkisian's career. Louisiana brings back most of the roster that went 10-1 with a road win over Iowa State last season, including elusive quarterback Levi Lewis. Texas should win this battle between two teams that open the season barely in the AP Top 25. However, a substantial advantage in experience and roster cohesion might be enough for another major Sun Belt-over-Big 12 upset.
Iowa State at West Virginia (Oct. 30)
Iowa State has had West Virginia's number lately, winning the last three meetings by a combined margin of 76 points. However, the Mountaineers were untouchable last year in Morgantown, going a perfect 5-0, with four of those wins coming by at least three scores.
Granted, WVU didn't play an Oklahoma or an Iowa State at home last year but keep an eye on this Cyclones road trip all the same. It is sandwiched directly in between home games against Oklahoma State and Texas and has "trap game" written all over it.
The Contenders Carousel
Oklahoma vs. Texas (Oct. 9 in Dallas)
Texas at Iowa State (Nov. 6)
Iowa State at Oklahoma (Nov. 20)
One big reason to despise the "mega conferences" direction in which college football seems to be headed is we'll be losing these full round-robin schedules. Every year, each Big 12 team plays every other Big 12 team, and it's awesome. It also means the conference championship is always a rematch, which is inherently fun.
Of particular note is the three-team round-robin between the likeliest conference contenders. If all three teams go 1-1 in this series, the pairing for the championship game will either come down to a tiebreaker or the elimination of the team that slips up (most often) in the other seven games on its schedule. Oklahoma and Iowa State are generally regarded as the better teams, and Texas doesn't get either of these as a true home game, so Oct. 9 and Nov. 6 are likely to be where the Longhorns fall out of this race.
Best Offense: Oklahoma Sooners
Iowa State should be quite potent on offense. Texas certainly could be, too. And I wouldn't be surprised in the least if TCU taps back into some of its 2014-15 glory days of offensive firepower.
But the answer here is Oklahoma, per usual.
The Sooners led the Big 12 in points per game and total yards per game in each of the past four seasons. The fact they did so last year was a vivid reminder that Lincoln Riley plays chess while everyone else plays checkers. They had a redshirt-freshman quarterback in Spencer Rattler, had to adjust to life without Kennedy Brooks (opt-out), Rhamondre Stevenson (suspended first five games) and Trey Sermon (transfer) in the backfield, and got shockingly little production out of their top returning wide receiver, Charleston Rambo.
This year, Rattler is back as a Heisman favorite. Brooks also returns to a running back room that now also includes Tennessee transfer, Eric Gray. That duo should provide a great one-two punch in what will be Oklahoma's secondary area of dominance. Its primary method of demoralizing opposing defenses will come via passes to Marvin Mims, Theo Wease, Jadon Haselwood and Austin Stogner.
And on the rare occasions where the defense can adequately cover all of those targets, Rattler—who is no Jalen Hurts or Kyler Murray, but who isn't a statue in the pocket, either—is more than capable of using his legs to get a first down.
Throw in the strength of this offensive line, and there might as well be an "Oklahoma vs. the Field" prop bet for which side places more players on the All-Big 12 first-team offense at the end of the season.
Best Defense: Iowa State Cyclones
Iowa State brings back eight of the 10 leading tacklers and nine of the 11 starters from what was already one of the best defenses in the Big 12 last season.
Led by the linebacker corps of Mike Rose, O'Rien Vance and Jake Hummel, all of who are returning next season, the Cyclones held opponents to 21.4 points and 104.3 rushing yards per game in 2020. And that was after a bit of a rough start that included the season-opening loss to Louisiana. Over their last nine games, those numbers dip to 18.0 and 100.7, respectively.
Iowa State also has edge rusher Will McDonald IV, who tied for the national lead in total sacks in 2020 with 10.5. He only averages about two tackles per game that aren't sacks, but he is a disruptive force at the forefront of this veteran defense. Look for Eyioma Uwazurike to also take on a bigger pass-rushing role with JaQuan Bailey out of the picture.
The only semi-significant question mark for the Cyclones is in the secondary, where they will need to replace Lawrence White IV.
The versatile safety racked up more than 200 tackles during his four years in Ames, but the hope is that Villanova transfer Jaquan Amos will be able to fill his shoes. Amos didn't play this past year, but he had 149 tackles and eight interceptions from 2017-19 with the Wildcats. If he can make that translate from the CAA to the Big 12, get ready for this defense to stifle some strong offenses.
1. Oklahoma Sooners (12-0; 9-0 in Big 12)
2. Iowa State Cyclones (10-2; 7-2 in Big 12)
3. Texas Longhorns (9-3; 6-3 in Big 12)
4. West Virginia Mountaineers (8-4; 6-3 in Big 12)
5. Texas Christian Horned Frogs (8-4; 5-4 in Big 12)
6. Oklahoma State Cowboys (7-5; 5-4 in Big 12)
7. Kansas State Wildcats (6-6; 4-5 in Big 12)
8. Baylor Bears (4-8; 2-7 in Big 12)
9. Texas Tech Red Raiders (4-8; 2-7 in Big 12)
10. Kansas Jayhawks (1-11; 0-9 in Big 12)
Projected Big 12 Championship: Iowa State vs. Oklahoma
Two weeks removed from a projected loss in Norman—possibly the only loss that either team will suffer in the entire regular season—can Iowa State bounce back for a neutral-site victory over Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship?
I may change my mind a dozen times over the course of the next three months of getting to know more about each of these teams, but my preseason gut call is that the Cyclones will go 0-2 against the Sooners this year.
And that's not an assertion that Iowa State is a fraudulent Top 10 team. I really like this squad and would pick them at a neutral site against anyone other than the Top 5 teams in the preseason AP Top 25.
The problem is Oklahoma is No. 2 in that poll, has won six consecutive Big 12 championships and should be a better all-around team than it has been at any point in those six years.
Again, I fully expect to waver on that belief multiple times between now and then, particularly if the Sooners have any trouble whatsoever with any opponent other than Texas in September and October. (Per ESPN's FPI, Oklahoma has at least a 91 percent chance of victory in eight of its first nine games, and I expect many blowouts along that journey.)
I just feel like we've seen the "Unstoppable Offense vs. Immovable Defense" quite a few times over the past few years, and fortune tends to favor the offense in those battles—unless the team with the unstoppable offense has a hapless defense and needs to score on nearly every possession in order to win. Oklahoma's defense should be good enough to keep that stipulation from coming into play here.
Prediction: Oklahoma 38, Iowa State 28
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.